Living in the First Paragraph of Henry James’s “The Story In It”

Is it possible to live inside a paragraph? Even a first paragraph by itself, duly discarding the rest of the story? Henry James’s “The Story In It” is quite a quick tale for The Master — only seventeen Library of America pages, whereas his stories are twenty-eight or thirty on average. It was published in January 1902 and I’ve never seen it mentioned or specially collected in any of the James collections I’ve gone through in the past ten years, except for Tony Tanner’s essay devoted to it in his book The American Mystery. The architectural soundness of the James opening paragraph has been often noted, especially in Ian Watt’s essay “The First Paragraph of The Ambassadors.” And there are other wonders in the shorter tales, like that of “A Private Life” and “The Middle Years.” I read the first paragraph of “The Story In It” a few times and just in those readings I stopped and looked at the sentences I was on and then rewinded maybe five times, so that I spent the only fifteen minutes of my reading, on the day of the Capitol Attack, devoted to just those five sentences. The force of the beauty fought my disgust at the world, but my disgust finally won. I couldn’t go on, but James haunted me. Here it is:

The weather had turned so much worse that the rest of the day was certainly lost. The wind had risen and the storm gathered force; they gave from time to time a thump at the firm windows and dashed even against those protected by the verandah their vicious splotches of rain. Beyond the lawn, beyond the cliff, the great wet brush of the sky dipped deep into the sea. But the lawn, already vivid with the touch of May, showed a violence of watered green; the budding shrubs and trees repeated the note as they tossed their thick masses, and the cold, troubled light, filling the pretty drawing-room, marked the spring afternoon as sufficiently young. The two ladies seated there in silence could pursue without difficulty — as well as, clearly, without interruption — their respective tasks; a confidence expressed, when the noise of the wind allowed it to be heard, by the sharp scratch of Mrs. Dyott’s pen at the table, where she busy with letters.

1st sentence — The weather had turned so much worse that the rest of the day was certainly lost. : Studies of James’s Late Style — crowned by the New York Edition, in which he revised a sizable part of his tremendous output of fiction and added prefaces — show how he forced more ambiguous and passive language into his texts. (One should keep in mind everything from 1897 on was dictated — William Gass wrote “All fine writing should be speakable even if it is not actually spoken. It must be mouthed; for that is how we first learn language, how we make in the world our earliest contacts.”) Even though this is a fairly straightforward sentence there is a hiccup with “worse” — a slight rhyme with “turned.” One could lose “much worse” and not lose the meaning, but James stretches it out with that and the passive voice.

2nd sentence — The wind had risen and the storm gathered force; they gave from time to time a thump at the firm windows and dashed even against those protected by the verandah their vicious splotches of rain. : The second clause in it demonstrates a delicious inversion. If James retained “their vicious splotches” in its more rightful place, after “firm windows,” one would lose the v-consonance. “Vicious splotches” by itself is wonderful with the eye-rhyme of the two o’s; I checked Google Books to see if any other writer had ever used this construction — seemingly no, only James.

3rd sentence — Beyond the lawn, beyond the cliff, the great wet brush of the sky dipped deep into the sea. : A marvel in eighteen words. First, the delaying tactic of “Beyond the lawn, beyond the cliff…” before the imagination’s camera pulls back to reveal the expanse of something grand: “the great wet brush of the sky dipped deep into the sea,” an image as pregnant and emboldened as a Turner seascape, with the painterly image and profusion of sky and sea.

4th sentence — But the lawn, already vivid with the touch of May, showed a violence of watered green; the budding shrubs and trees repeated the note as they tossed their thick masses, and the cold, troubled light, filling the pretty drawing-room, marked the spring afternoon as sufficiently young. : “But the lawn…” — caesura. This shifts us back to the house and the luminosity of “a violence of watered green” — “watered green” being more commonplace in the late 19th Century prose, but “violence of watered green” is of another energy. It vies with Shakespeare — and now that you mention it, Mr. James, watered grass has more often than not a violence: it is sweaty and plucked hair (physical exertion or violence — or sexuality, which can be either, no matter gender). But after the high hurdle of the semicolon, my female tending thoughts (and James’s, given the story) were reinforced with “trees repeated the note as they tossed their thick masses,” before we leave the outdoors as nature fills the drawing room with “cold, troubled light.”

5th sentence — The two ladies seated there in silence could pursue without difficulty — as well as, clearly, without interruption — their respective tasks; a confidence expressed, when the noise of the wind allowed it to be heard, by the sharp scratch of Mrs. Dyott’s pen at the table, where she busy with letters. : Here we leave off the atmosphere and are introduced to the two women in the story.

In search of the first paragraph on the internet for cutting and pasting purposes, I came across Kate Brigg’s piece on this story, but even more so her concentration on that first paragraph and the science of reading. She had called those first sentences, garden path sentences — grammatically correct sentences that mislead the reader. She went on to write:

Thinking about how garden-path sentences work has helped to clarify what the experience of reading Henry James is often like for me: I am reading and at the same time I am made to feel conscious of the effort of reading, of having to go back over a sentence or a section of a sentence and begin again in order to proceed to the next, of working backwards in order to move forwards. Reading Henry James is nothing like a flow, an unfolding; it is rarely immersive. Reading Henry James, I am made to feel conscious of the action of reading, of reading as an action.

And, even beyond this, her footnote attached, quoting Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, raised my eyes: “When we remember the experience of reading a book, we imagine a continuous unfolding of images [..] We imagine that the experience of reading is like that of watching a film. But this is not what actually happens — this is neither what reading is, not what reading is like.” When I remember reading a book, I don’t remember continually unfolding images — I often remember when and where I was when I read it and in the last ten years or so (I’m forty-six), I don’t remember “story” so much as sentences or passages (and where they are on a page, even if I don’t have a number) when the prose didn’t take me out of my life as much as plainly plastered me back into some section already lived or minutely felt. At a reading a few years ago, Sergio de la Pava told me the experience of a book was so much richer than a film — it was understood we meant art house films. There was some scuttlebutt in the audience. Reading is more an investment, time-wise, and it is grounded in language. Film going is relatively brief and really more concerned with watching people or seeing places one would otherwise not encounter. But mainly, the manual process of reading with page-hugging or rereading or looking up a word in the dictionary, distinguishes it from film going where the artist created it so it doesn’t stop, it keeps going, via intricate editing and sound design, and, if one looks away, one misses something.

Maybe reading as an immersive experience is overrated, especially since Modernism brought out our fractured consciousness. Reading is almost never a flow for me, I’m too busy plotting what to steal and how to disguise it, and, as Lydia Davis claims to do, I often don’t finish things after getting the main gist or enough of it.

As it stands, the James story has been notarized with the Capitol Riot in my archives. On the next day, I read the remainder of the story, which is, incredibly, mostly dialogue. There are only three characters — those two women at the beginning and a Colonel who comes to visit. He is having an affair with the older of the women but doesn’t want the younger one to know, and they keep the secret, though they both sense the younger woman has feelings for him, which may or may not be the case. Everyone can be said to be lying, but to very different degrees.

This is all good — it’s a tangled web of intrigue — but I’m still stuck on the atmosphere of that opening paragraph — I’m still standing at the base, admiring the architecture and not wanting to enter the building. Perhaps I’m staying with the paragraph because I’ve a decade-old day dream of living in an English manor house and this is the closest I will get.

Reading Late James is like playing tennis against Rafael Nadal on clay, and it is probably painful to some, as John Ashbery wrote. No one ever wrote English prose like that up till then or since — like a comet, one time only.

Author of See What I See (Zerogram Press) and Especially the Bad Things (Splice) greggerke.com

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